Although "soft cream" may seem like it holds the mantle as quintessential cold treat in Japan, there is one seasonal delicacy that is truly Japanese: kakigori, or shave ice. You know, when I was a kid growing up in Japan, there were several distinctive sounds of summer--the buzzing of semi, or cicadas, the pop pop pop of hanabi, or fireworks, and the boom boom boom of taiko drums at festivals--but perhaps my favorite signal that summer had arrived was the guru guru guru guru of ice being shaved. And I'm not alone in that sentiment. There is documentation suggesting the existence of kakigori shave ice desserts since the 1860s in port towns like Yokohama and Hakodate. Just look at the sketch below of a kakigori vendor in Hakodate in 1883.
While soft cream, ice milk, and other cold treats have their place among Japanese summer desserts, kakigori's spiritual home is here in Japan, and nobody does it better. Holding the title of Japan's quintessential summer treat for 150 years has given people a lot of time to tinker with kakigori, coming up with all sorts of innovative ways to enjoy it. In this article, I'll walk you through the basics, some of the most unique options out there, and ways you can enjoy kakigori during your summer journeys in Japan.
The basic Kakigori dish is extremely simple: shaved ice with a syrup topping. The syrup could be any number of sweet fruit or candy flavors.
Advanced-level kakigori will start adding things like ice cream, azuki red beans, jelly, matcha powder, fruit, or other types of syrup toppings, like kinako.
Sure, advance level kakigori is interesting and way more than what you'll probably be able to find back home. Still, would you believe that there is an even higher level of kakigori specialization? Here are a few of the more interesting ones I've encountered:
Sweet Potato Creme Brûlée Kakigori: a cafe in Gunma was recently featured for its unique kakigori that takes shaved ice, places it in a cold creme brulee dish, coats it with sweet potato custard and sugar, but is torched to create a hot, crispy creme brulee crust. The result was described as "Crunchy x Syrupy x fluffy."
Hydrangea Kakigori: a cafe in Kichijoji (Tokyo) offers its take on the season with a Hydrangea-inspired shave ice dessert. The shave ice starts basic enough simply with blueberry and strawberry syrup (to give two of the variations of hydrangea color), but then tops it with loads of fresh cream and a flourish in the form of a jelly hydrangea.
Character-inspired Kakigori: some cafes choose to turn their Kakigori into 3D canvases for artistic expression. While some are beautiful and resemble the seasons like the hydrangea Ice above, others embrace the pop culture side of art with character-inspired options. Here is the Kuma-chan ice at Japanese Ice Ouca.
So what are some different ways to enjoy kakigori?
Buy a souvenir to make it at home:
When I was a child, one of my favorite summer pastimes was to break out our bear shaped kakigori maker, throw a few ice cubes in, and make myself some shave ice. These shave ice makers are still on sale in Japan, and for anywhere between 4000-6000 yen, you can take home your very own kakigori maker. You could go for something more traditional, but the metal contraptions can get a bit cumbersome if you're trying to travel light!
Cool off with Kakigori at Festivals:
Kakigori will be a main stay at most summer festivals. The options will typically be relatively limited (syrups and maybe some condensed milk), but it's a great way to cool off if you're trying to beat the heat!
Restaurants and cafes:
If you are looking for gourmet options, you'll probably stumble upon a few places along your travels that offer some interesting Kakigori choices, especially around popular tourist spots. All you have to do is look for the flag that advertises a store selling kakigori (see picture below). Still, if you want the fanciest of the fancy, do a bit of research beforehand to find gems like the gourmet options I described above.
So there you have it...
...as you can see, kakigori truly is the quintessential Japanese summer treat, and it comes in all different shapes, sizes, and flavors. If you are trying to beat the heat this summer, I say zehi, give kakigori a try--you won't be disappointed!